Category Archives: Baptism

Meditations on baptism (part 3)

What does the “great commission” say or imply regarding water baptism?

The history of Christianity makes clear that the primary assumption concerning baptism is that it involves water, whether immersion or pouring or sprinkling. We find this assumption with most all of the Christian groups or denominations. Debates concerning its nature (sign or sacrament), its timing (infant baptism or believer’s baptism), and its method (immersion or pouring) continue, but all involve water. Is water baptism biblical in a post-Christ’s death/resurrection Christianity?

“Did Christ command his disciples 
to baptize with water?”

That is the first sentence in James H. Moon’s book: WATER BAPTISM: A PAGAN AND JEWISH RITE, BUT NOT CHRISTIAN: PROVEN BY SCRIPTURE AND HISTORY, CONFIRMED BY THE LIVES OF SAINTS WHO WERE NEVER BAPTIZED WITH WATER

How’s that for a book title? It was also published under the title Why Friends (Quakers) do not baptize with water. I think we know where Rev. Moon* stands on the subject of water baptism. My ideas in this post are influenced and guided somewhat by Moon’s, who, I believe from the title of his book, was a Quaker. I would, however, point the reader to Rev. Moon’s book (and any other similar book) rather than this post to fully dig into this subject.

Let’s take a look at Christ’s command to his apostles to carry forward the message of the gospel. There are seven places in scripture (that I know of) where the so-called great commission is declared or referenced. They are as follows in the ESV translation:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19)

My notes: Here we have baptism mentioned. Does this baptism have to be with water? Is it required to be water by the text? No. One will, of course, assume water baptism if that is the expectation, but it is not clear from the text.

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. (Mark 16:15)

My notes: Here baptism is not even referenced. If baptizing converts is so critical to salvation, or even just being accepted into the visible/local church body, why is it not called out here? One could argue that proclaiming the gospel includes baptism, but that would be a stretch. When Christ came proclaiming the gospel, he was proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. In Matthew 4:17-25 we read of Jesus beginning his ministry, teaching in the synagogues, healing, gathering his disciples, etc. Nowhere in this passage does it say that Jesus baptized his disciples into his ministry, or baptized others, or called for baptism. It is unlikely that Jesus had a low view of baptism, for he was just baptized by John the Baptist—even insisted on it—but we don’t see Jesus carrying on John’s baptism. Thus, it does not appear that proclaiming the gospel necessarily required baptism such as John preached, at least not from these verses.

Curious: What does “to the whole creation” mean? I assume this only means people, but maybe St. Francis was right.

. . . and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:47)

My notes: Here again we have the key message to be carried by the disciples to all the nations, and it does not specifically call out baptism. What it calls out is repentance and forgiveness of sins. And again we could link baptism to this message, especially repentance since that was connected to baptism with John the Baptist’s preaching. But the connection might also be a stretch, and it is not made in this verse. Given the importance placed on baptism in the history of the church (only the baptized could partake of the Eucharist), one would guess that Luke would have know the importance of baptism and called it out here, but he does not. What does that say about the traditional understanding of baptism?

Also: It is interesting that “beginning from Jerusalem” is included. This highlights, intentionally or not, the particularly Jewish origins of the gospel. I think we can easily forget this.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. This verse calls us to examine how the Father sent Jesus, since that is the way the disciples are being sent. We should take a look at the context (John 20:19b-23): Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me,even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Notice that the “commission” to the disciples comes right after Jesus showed them his wounds. Could it be that that is how they should be sent, that is, as servants willing to lay down their lives for Christ’s sake? Then the words, “as the Father has sent me” point to an orientation of their hearts, to their primary commitments, rather than to a method of converting others, such as through baptism. This does not negate baptism outright, but it does seem, by implication, to relegate it to a lesser or non-essential position. What it does foreground is the role the apostles will play in forgiveness, a role I am not able to unpack at this time. Regardless, Christ sends the apostles into the world and does not mention baptism.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. Here we have the “commission” calling out the witness nature of the apostles ministry. From what I can tell there is no mention of baptism, at least not water baptism. However, could it be that “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” refers to a spiritual baptism? Is that how we are to understand Christian baptism, as from the Holy Spirit rather than through water?

And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:42)

My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. Preaching and testifying make up the work of the “commission.” However, the next several verses say this: While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:44-48) Here we have water baptism clearly called out, but only after those to be baptized have had the Holy Spirit fall on them. They do not get baptized in order to receive the Holy Spirit, at least not here. It is also clear that that falling of the Spirit produced visible evidences. Water baptism follows divine baptism. Is Peter merely adding a Jewish custom to a new Christian custom? Why the need for water at all?

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17)

My notes: Here the apostle Paul clearly makes a distinction between baptizing and preaching. In his mind the act of baptizing was either secondary to preaching, or not important at all. It was the telling of the gospel, and the hearers believing it, that was critical. If the church has traditionally made baptism a requirement for either entering church membership or for salvation (or both), why does Paul take such a low view of baptism? If I had to choose Paul’s view or church tradition I would choose Paul.

It is important to quote James H. Moon at this point:

Peter did preach to the people and the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had fallen upon others of them in the beginning, at Pentecost. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he said “John indeed baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Here Peter was made instrumental in baptizing with the Holy Spirit through Gospel preaching, and he recognized this to be the same baptism which his Lord had promised should supersede John’s water baptism and the same as that with which they were filled eight years before, in the beginning at Pentecost, and the Pentecost baptism he said was that which the prophet Joel foretold should be poured out upon all flesh; upon sons and daughters, servants and handmaidens, and that they should prophecy.

Can anything be plainer than that this Pentecost baptism and that the baptism which was poured out upon the household of Cornelius as Peter preached, and the baptism which our Lord promised in the place of John’s water baptism and the baptism which Joel foretold should be poured out upon all flesh are all one and the same baptism, and does it not follow that this is the baptism of the commission, the one baptism of the Gospel, and that this is Christian baptism and that there is no water in it?

Because Peter and others continued to baptize with water is no evidence to the contrary. They continued their old Jewish customs generally. They pronounced it necessary to abstain from certain meats. They insisted that Paul should adhere to circumcision. They refused to eat with Gentiles. With such Jewish proclivities how could they at once abandon water baptism? (p. 7-8)

I am not yet convinced that the apostles continued the practice of water baptism merely because they couldn’t completely abandon their Jewish customs. However, the power of culture is remarkable, and it could be true. I also do not know how often and in what contexts they performed water baptism, and in what contexts they did not.

What is fascinating to notice about the so-called “great commission” references is not only that baptism is rarely mentioned, and that water baptism seems absent altogether, but that there is no baptismal or liturgical formula given. They are all different in wording even if they are all the same in their underlying meaning. This would imply that in the early church the perspective was not formulaic regarding the “process” of becoming a Christian, rather there is the recognition that the Holy Spirit works to change men’s hearts, the gospel is proclaimed (in many possible ways and contexts), and receptive souls are added to the growing number of faithful. The apostles were told to take that message of hope to the world. They were not told, it would clearly seem, to convert people with baptism, though they are not barred from performing baptisms. I am not against Christian traditions growing up and becoming standard practice, at least not in principle, but it does not appear, at least from this brief overview, that our popular baptismal formulas go back as far as the apostles. If this is so then what we may have inherited are extra-biblical Christian traditions, for better or for worse. It must be emphasized that we are only looking at “great commission” verses here and drawing some conclusions.

Tentative conclusion: The early church may have practiced water baptism because they inherited that practice from their Jewish and pagan cultures. However, the apostles were not specifically told to baptize with water, rather to take the gospel to the world. Our various church traditions around baptism may be more Jewish and pagan than about following Christ. Though I cannot say for sure.

This leads me to several more questions. Can we derive a thesis statement like this: Without the gospel water baptism is meaningless, and with the gospel it is unnecessary. Or is that going too far? Was water baptism assumed and thus there was no need to specifically add it to the apostles charge? What do we do with Matthew 28:19, which does mention baptism? What do we do with church tradition?

* not Rev. Sun Myung Moon (just in case you were wondering).

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Saint Augustine on Death without Baptism

This is continuation of sorts from my previous post on the early church fathers on baptism.

The City of God, Book XIII, Chapter 7

Of the Death Which the Unbaptized Suffer for the Confession of Christ.

For whatever unbaptized persons die confessing Christ, this confession is of the same efficacy for the remission of sins as if they were washed in the sacred font of baptism. For He who said, “Unless a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” [1] made also an exception in their favor, in that other sentence where He no less absolutely said, “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven;” [2] and in another place, “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it.” [3] And this explains the verse, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” [4] For what is more precious than a death by which a man’s sins are all forgiven, and his merits increased an hundredfold? For those who have been baptized when they could no longer escape death, and have departed this life with all their sins blotted out have not equal merit with those who did not defer death, though it was in their power to do so, but preferred to end their life by confessing Christ, rather than by denying Him to secure an opportunity of baptism. And even had they denied Him under pressure of the fear of death, this too would have been forgiven them in that baptism, in which was remitted even the enormous wickedness of those who had slain Christ. But how abundant in these men must have been the grace of the Spirit, who breathes where He lists, seeing that they so dearly loved Christ as to be unable to deny Him even in so sore an emergency, and with so sure a hope of pardon! Precious, therefore, is the death of the saints, to whom the grace of Christ has been applied with such gracious effects, that they do not hesitate to meet death themselves, if so be they might meet Him. And precious is it, also, because it has proved that what was originally ordained for the punishment of the sinner, has been used for the production of a richer harvest of righteousness. But not on this account should we look upon death as a good thing, for it is diverted to such useful purposes, not by any virtue of its own, but by the divine interference. Death was originally proposed as an object of dread, that sin might not be committed; now it must be undergone that sin may not be committed, or, if committed, be remitted, and the award of righteousness bestowed on him whose victory has earned it.

My notes: Clearly Augustine has in view the idea that if one dies because of one’s faith, that is, put to death because one is a Christian, that death acts as a baptism even if one was never baptized according to the traditions of the Church. In other words, one does not need to be baptized, that is immersed (or doused) in water, in order to be saved if one dies for Christ before one can be properly baptized. Martyrdom is a baptism. By implication, then, other than martyrdom one must undergo traditional water baptism in order to be saved. Water baptism seems to be required by the early church on the whole.

Other questions: Does baptism blot out sins? Is martyrdom a guarantee of salvation? How does death increase one’s merits a hundred fold? I need to study Augustine more. I fear I am in far too deep of waters for now.

Finally: What do we do with verses such as Matthew 7:21-23. Christ says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” Along with casting out demons and doing mighty works in the name of Christ, could this verse have included “even being put to death in your name?” Presumably, then, one can still be a martyr and not be “known” by Christ. Thus, it would follow, martyrdom does (or might) not overide the true spititual condition of the individual, even if that death is seen as a kind of baptism that comes as a result of “confessing Christ.” Again, I do not know enough of Augustine’s thought to know what was his position on this.

Footnotes:
[1] John 3:5
[2] Matthew 10:32
[3] Matthew 16:25
[4] Psalms 116:15

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The early church fathers on baptism

20th century icon of the fathers of the 
first ecumenical council in Nicaea (325 CE).
(courtesy: Orthodox Church in America)


The following quotes (snippets really) on baptism from the early church fathers are taken from the web site The Church Fathers. I quote them here as part of my research of baptism. My knowledge of the early church fathers falls somewhere between little and none. My fundamentalist training considered them not apostolic enough, and therefore too Catholic, so I never studied them. I am beginning to realize that is a mistake which I am trying to correct. These quotes are also out of context. Therefore they could use more exegesis than I can give here. However, I will use them to spark my thoughts and get a sense of what the early church thought about baptism. I also assume the church fathers have in mind traditional water baptism. After each quote I have included my thoughts, which are mostly questions. I welcome your notes/questions and insights as well. I am sure there is a lot more the early church fathers have to say on baptism.

The Letter of Barnabas
“Regarding [baptism], we have the evidence of Scripture that Israel would refuse to accept the washing which confers the remission of sins and would set up a substitution of their own instead [Ps. 1:3–6]. Observe there how he describes both the water and the cross in the same figure. His meaning is, ‘Blessed are those who go down into the water with their hopes set on the cross.’ Here he is saying that after we have stepped down into the water, burdened with sin and defilement, we come up out of it bearing fruit, with reverence in our hearts and the hope of Jesus in our souls” (Letter of Barnabas 11:1–10 [A.D. 74]).

My notes: The interpretation of Psalm 1:3-6 seems to me a stretch, if not outright goofy (though I am willing to be wrong, especially if the author is actually a witness of Christ). The cross, as a method of torture and death was used by the Romans, and maybe used earlier, but probably not as early as King David. To see every tree in the OT as a reference to the cross of Christ goes too far. Regardless, though the idea of a suffering messiah was not unknown in ancient Israel, it is not likely the psalmist had a suffering messiah in view here. And it is even less likely that these verses are evidence that Israel would “refuse to accept the washing which confers the remission of sins.” It seems more proper to see these lines contrasting the righteous, or good Jew against the wicked Jew. Apart from the Psalm citation, the statement, “after we have stepped down into the water, burdened with sin and defilement, we come up out of it bearing fruit, with reverence in our hearts and the hope of Jesus in our souls” makes some sense, but can also be interpreted different ways. Does baptism confer these things to the believer, or is it symbolic of an interior reality already present? Does baptism actually confer the remission of sins? What are the fruits? I would count the author of this letter, whoever he is, as a fellow believer, but I would probably disagree with his method of prooftexting, and question his understanding of baptism. I also wonder, am I seeing his words through my own reformed prism?

Hermas
“‘I have heard, sir,’ said I, ‘from some teacher, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins.’ He said to me, ‘You have heard rightly, for so it is’” (The Shepherd 4:3:1–2 [A.D. 80]).

My notes: We know the baptism of John was for repentance. Was the baptism of Jesus for the remission of sins? Or was it for entering the community of believers in a similar way circumcision was an act required to be a member of the nation of Israel? Do we obtain the remission of sins via baptism? Is baptism and repentance essentially the same thing? It appears, at least, that in A.D. 80 it was common to see baptism and repentance as being linked, and probably inseparable. Is this how Jesus understood baptism? If baptism does remove sins, is it only for former sins? Does one get baptized in order to get a “clean slate” and start over? Can one repent and not be baptized and still be saved? Can one ignore baptism and still be saved? Can one consciously refuse baptism and still be saved? 

Ignatius of Antioch
“Let none of you turn deserter. Let your baptism be your armor; your faith, your helmet; your love, your spear; your patient endurance, your panoply” (Letter to Polycarp 6 [A.D. 110]).

My notes: I imagine Ignatius is equating baptism with faith, which makes some sense. Still, I wonder how baptism can be all though things. If we see baptism as being a kind of key that allows one to enter into the community of faith, and that community is the support for one’s ow faith, then I can see the connection, somewhat. But can baptism be one’s faith, helmet, love… etc.? If one repents and is baptized can one turn deserter? What power, then, has baptism? Does it have any, at least in conferring something spiritual and lasting to the individual? Or is it a sign of repentance and fidelity to the truth of the gospel, but can still be either a false sign altogether, or merely a sign attributed to a sinner who, because he is a sinner, will betray that sign, even against his own will?

Second Clement
“For, if we do the will of Christ, we shall find rest; but if otherwise, then nothing shall deliver us from eternal punishment, if we should disobey his commandments. . . . [W]ith what confidence shall we, if we keep not our baptism pure and undefiled, enter into the kingdom of God? Or who shall be our advocate, unless we be found having holy and righteous works?’ (Second Clement 6:7–9 [A.D. 150]).

My notes: If we understand baptism as one of Jesus’ commandments then to not get baptized is to not do the will of Christ. It would seem that we have two choices, baptism or righteous works. Since we cannot have righteous works then we need an advocate, who is Christ. Therefore we must obey Christ’s commandments and receive baptism. That makes sense to me, as long as our understanding of baptism is correct, and if Jesus commanded us to be baptized, which he did, but which might be understood in differing ways. What does it mean to keep our baptism pure and undefiled? If baptism removes all former sins, does this mean that one must not sin anymore after baptism? Will Christ only be an advocate to those who have been baptized and kept that baptism pure and undefiled? I like: “For, if we do the will of Christ, we shall fine rest.” However, does this mean baptism confers rest?

Justin Martyr
“Whoever are convinced and believe that what they are taught and told by us is the truth, and professes to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to beseech God in fasting for the remission of their former sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are led by us to a place where there is water, and they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn: ‘In the name of God, the Lord and Father of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit,’ they receive the washing of water. For Christ said, ‘Unless you be reborn, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’” (First Apology 61:14–17 [A.D. 151]).

My notes: This passage seems rather straight forward and biblical. I am not sure what I think about the beseeching “God in fasting for the remission of their former sins.” This process is a bit more than what a modern American evangelical would require, more than merely saying a little prayer and getting a hug from your camp counselor. On the other hand we are a culture that places no value on suffering. Note that it is not merely the individual convert who fasts, but the church fasts with him. I find that compelling, and telling in terms of the communal nature of faith. If the church fasts with you then it seems appropriate that baptism would also be required, for it is a kind of initiation rite. However, does fasting or baptism or any other action adequately take care of former sins? If so, how?

Theophilus of Antioch
“Moreover, those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God, so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration—all who proceed to the truth and are born again and receive a blessing from God” (To Autolycus 2:16 [A.D. 181]).

My notes: Theophilus is in the middle of writing about the creation of the world. He is in day 5 of creation and describes creatures coming from the sea. Thus “those things” refer to living creatures proceeding from the waters. I do not see how this can be a sign of future repentance and remission of sins via baptism. Is there any other biblical evidence that makes this link? Also, what is the nature of this blessing from God?

Clement of Alexandria
“When we are baptized, we are enlightened. Being enlightened, we are adopted as sons. Adopted as sons, we are made perfect. Made perfect, we become immortal . . . ‘and sons of the Most High’ [Ps. 82:6]. This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins, a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted, an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation” (The Instructor of Children 1:6:26:1 [A.D. 191]).

My notes: I find a lot of terms in this quote that need clarification. What does “enlightened” mean in this context? Is it that one’s eyes are now open to the truth? Does baptism effect such enlightenment, or is baptism done because of enlightenment? I cannot tell if Clement has a sequence in mind here or if he is just mashing together a bunch of elements that all come together at the time of conversion. I like that he says our sins are remitted by a “gift of grace.” We do the baptizing, but it is still ultimately a gift of grace by which we are saved.

Tertullian
“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life. . . . [But] a viper of the [Gnostic] Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism—which is quite in accordance with nature, for vipers and.asps . . . themselves generally do live in arid and waterless places. But we, little fishes after the example of our [Great] Fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water. So that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes—by taking them away from the water!” (Baptism 1 [A.D. 203]).

“Baptism itself is a corporal act by which we are plunged into the water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from our sins” (ibid., 7:2).

My notes: Apparently there were Gnostics who preached against baptism, or at least downplayed its importance. This is the first quote here that calls baptism a sacrament. I’m not sure if that is meaningful. The imagery of snakes and fishes is interesting, but I’m not sure if it’s a good argument. Tertullian says baptism is a physical (corporal) act, but its effect is spiritual. Is that a causal relationship? Does the act of baptism truly produce a spiritual effect? Does baptism truly free us from our sin? Or is this an expression (human language) of a bigger picture in which baptism is a visible sign that stands for the work of the Holy Spirit and the heart of belief?

Hippolytus
“And the bishop shall lay his hand upon them [the newly baptized], invoking and saying: ‘O Lord God, who did count these worthy of deserving the forgiveness of sins by the laver of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with your Holy Spirit and send upon them thy grace [in confirmation], that they may serve you according to your will” (The Apostolic Tradition 22:1 [A.D. 215]).

My notes: This quote appears to be instructions for baptism. If I understand the sequence: a) individuals get baptized, b) their sins are therefore forgiven, c) they are now worthy to receive the Holy Spirit, d) which is conferred upon the individuals by the laying on of hands by the bishop. Is this not a mix of biblical teaching and non-biblical (or extra-biblical) traditions?

Cyprian of Carthage
“While I was lying in darkness . . . I thought it indeed difficult and hard to believe . . . that divine mercy was promised for my salvation, so that anyone might be born again and quickened unto a new life by the laver of the saving water, he might put off what he had been before, and, although the structure of the body remained, he might change himself in soul and mind. . . . But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the water of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man” (To Donatus 3–4 [A.D. 246]).

My notes: Cyprian seems to overstep both the power of baptism (if any) and the nature of salvation. When he says, “…anyone might be born again and quickened unto a new life by the laver of the saving water…” he implies that baptism itself does the saving. He goes on to imply that the individual can change himself in soul and mind by getting baptized. Repentance may be implied in these words, but it is not explicit. Then he says, “… a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart…” implying (or rather directly stating) that his heart is now pure. If he is speaking only in heavenly terms, in terms of some kind of economy of grace, then this might make sense logically (though it still might be wrong), but he seems to say, rather, that his heart is actually pure, free of sin. I believe this is an unbiblical position.

Aphraahat the Persian Sage
“From baptism we receive the Spirit of Christ. At that same moment in which the priests invoke the Spirit, heaven opens, and he descends and rests upon the waters, and those who are baptized are clothed in him. The Spirit is absent from all those who are born of the flesh, until they come to the water of rebirth, and then they receive the Holy Spirit. . . . [I]n the second birth, that through baptism, they receive the Holy Spirit” (Treatises 6:14:4 [A.D. 340]).

My notes: What interests me here is the idea of the priest invoking the Spirit. Is this possible? Is this biblical? It sounds more like magic. Also, it is clear in the passage that one does not (cannot?) receive the Spirit until after (or through) baptism.

Cyril of Jerusalem
“If any man does not receive baptism, he does not have salvation. The only exception is the martyrs, who, even without water, will receive baptism, for the Savior calls martyrdom a baptism [Mark 10:38]. . . . Bearing your sins, you go down into the water; but the calling down of grace seals your soul and does not permit that you afterwards be swallowed up by the fearsome dragon. You go down dead in your sins, and you come up made alive in righteousness” (Catechetical Lectures 3:10, 12 [A.D. 350]).

My notes: It is clear that Cyril sees baptism is an essential requirement for salvation. Does scripture make such a strict demand? Is one made alive in righteousness through baptism? If so, how does that align with our experience of continuing to sin after baptism?

Basil the Great
“For prisoners, baptism is ransom, forgiveness of debts, the death of sin, regeneration of the soul, a resplendent garment, an unbreakable seal, a chariot to heaven, a royal protector, a gift of adoption” (Sermons on Moral and Practical Subjects 13:5 [A.D. 379]).

My notes: Here we have another list, as with Ignatius of Antioch, that equates baptism with a number of things: a chariot to heaven, and royal protector… etc. Is baptism all these things? If so, are we to understand baptism here as being the symbol of the who package of salvation and all that it delivers? Or are these strictly qualities of baptism?

Council of Constantinople I
“We believe . . . in one baptism for the remission of sins” (Nicene Creed [A.D. 381]).

My notes: This seems rather straightforward and I don’t have any questions. However, I do need to study the creeds.

Ambrose of Milan
“The Lord was baptized, not to be cleansed himself but to cleanse the waters, so that those waters, cleansed by the flesh of Christ which knew no sin, might have the power of baptism. Whoever comes, therefore, to the washing of Christ lays aside his sins” (Commentary on Luke 2:83 [A.D. 389]).

My notes: The idea of Christ cleansing the waters reminds me of Luther’s idea that “Christ puts salvation into baptism.” If Luther is right then I would say Ambrose is right.

Augustine
“It is an excellent thing that the Punic [North African] Christians call baptism salvation and the sacrament of Christ’s body nothing else than life. Whence does this derive, except from an ancient and, as I suppose, apostolic tradition, by which the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture too” (Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:24:34 [A.D. 412]).

“The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration” (ibid., 2:27:43).

“Baptism washes away all, absolutely all, our sins, whether of deed, word, or thought, whether sins original or added, whether knowingly or unknowingly contracted” (Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 3:3:5 [A.D. 420]).

“This is the meaning of the great sacrament of baptism, which is celebrated among us: all who attain to this grace die thereby to sin—as he himself [Jesus] is said to have died to sin because he died in the flesh (that is, ‘in the likeness of sin’)—and they are thereby alive by being reborn in the baptismal font, just as he rose again from the sepulcher. This is the case no matter what the age of the body. For whether it be a newborn infant or a decrepit old man—since no one should be barred from baptism—just so, there is no one who does not die to sin in baptism. Infants die to original sin only; adults, to all those sins which they have added, through their evil living, to the burden they brought with them at birth” (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love 13[41] [A.D. 421]).

My notes: I am not ready to tackle Augustine. He deserves much more attention from me. Nonetheless, I am not sure I understand the idea of an infant dying to original sin. Does that baptized infant then require adult baptism later for evil living? If adult baptism takes care of the sins of evil living up to that point, does repeated baptism take care of repeated evil living? I would doubt Augustine would say so. I still have much to sort out regarding infant baptism, for I was trained in the “believer’s baptism” perspective and that’s the one that makes sense to me.

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Meditations on baptism (part 1)

Baptism of Jesus, Andrei Rublev, 1405
(Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow)

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2: 38-39, ESV)

I have been thinking and wondering about these verses. Peter has just proclaimed the gospel and the hearers have responded positively. They ask, “What shall we do?” That is, we have heard the message, know that it is true for it has convicted us, and now we want to become, like you Peter, followers of Christ. What steps are required now? The verses above are Peter’s response. I like Peter’s response, but I have come to realize that my Baptist training makes me do a little mental shift as I read it. That shift is kinda like when one reads about how people lived and thought in centuries past, and where one holds simultaneously the ideas of reverence for those people, but also judgement. In other words, I hold in the highest esteem Peter and the other apostles, but I “know” that baptism is really just a symbolic act, something that was popular then, in that culture, but not necessary for either salvation or receiving God’s grace. Is that true? That is my training. Is that how Peter saw it, or how he would see it now if he had the wisdom and clarity that has come to us? Or, and I fear much more likely, are my beliefs somehow skewed? I do not want to believe that having an apostolic faith means that I come up with the arguments that make most sense to me and then claim the apostles meant what I believe—because they must have, because my argument is air tight, because I revere the Bible, right?

The irony that I have inherited is that my Baptist training may have actually taught me an un-apostolic understanding of baptism. My desire is to correct my understanding and to follow Peter’s (and the other apostles’) teaching. I want to sort this out not only for my sake, but for my family’s as well.

The issues for me with these verses are:

  1. “Repent and be baptized every one of you…” I have always believed that baptism is optional. I know that in some way it must be. If someone does not have the opportunity, or has never heard of baptism, then they must still be able to be saved, for it is God who does the saving. But here is Peter combining repentance and baptism as interlinking requirements. Possibly baptism could be understood as a culturally proscribed public act and therefore it could be substituted in some way with another act, but there is still the combination of repentance and the public act (and maybe repentance is understood as a public act as well, though I tend to think it is more internal to the individual). Regardless, Peter says everyone of them must be baptized along with their repentance. I wonder what many Christians today would say in Peter’s stead. I think many, at least many lightly-reformed Christians would not include baptism—either as forcefully or at all. But Peter seems to require it. Was he merely a product of his culture?
  2. “…for the forgiveness of your sins…” Having been excellently trained in reformed thinking about such things I have always known that what Peter really mean to say is, “Repent for the forgiveness of your sins, and then publicly display your new heart commitments with the external, ritualistic act that has cultural meaning for us today, that is, be baptized.” Is my reformed thinking right? Peter, as we read, actually says something closer to repentance+baptism=forgiveness of sins. How do we sort this out, or do we? Even repentance isn’t really a matter of the heart as much as it’s a result of a heart change. We repent because we have had our hearts invaded by the Holy Spirit and our eyes open to the truth from which we find no escape except in Christ. Repentance is the act of turning to God, of turning away from what it was we were worshiping before, of being contrite; their response shows they are already chosen by God. Thus, when the crowd asks what they shall do, they have already been convicted by Peter’s message. The Spirit of God has already worked the beginnings of salvation in their hearts. Peter. looking over the crowd, would realize the crowd’s response indicates that God has chosen to save them. Given that, the proper response is repentance and baptism. Why not just repentance? Why not just a welcoming embrace? What does baptism do? Why does Peter require it? Or should I merely do my little mental gymnastics and “know” that that is not what Peter really meant, at least outside of culturally bound expectations.
  3. “…and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Now Peter really messes with my head. He seems to be saying something like: repentance+baptism leads to the forgiveness of sins and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. In other words, if I repent and get baptized I will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (As an aside, is the gift of the Holy Spirit something different than the Holy Spirit? Do I receive the Holy Spirit or the gift of the Spirit? Is there a difference?) Again we are in that position of wondering if there is a direct and even necessary connection between baptism and being saved. If I must both repent and get baptized in order to have my sins forgiven and to receive the Holy Spirit, then I must repent and be baptized. And again I am left with the same questions: Why not just repentance? Does not the response of the crowd indicate they have already received the Holy Spirit, at least in some fashion? What does baptism do? Why does Peter require it? Or should I merely do my little mental gymnastics and “know” that that is not what Peter meant.
  4. “… the promise is for you and for your children…” These words are popular amongst the crowd that practices infant baptism. I do not know anything of the theology or arguments for infant baptism, but I do wonder at these words. I can understand the words, “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” That makes sense to me, and who is to stop God? But why specifically say, “the promise is for you and for your children” instead of “the promise is for you and for anyone who believes?” How is this promise made to the children? Is this merely Peter’s way of saying the promise is for everyone who is of the age when they can understand what the sinner’s prayer really means? Even then it would seem that Peter is saying the promise is that everyone who repents and gets baptized will have their sins forgiven and will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; and that this gift is even for children. (This part of the verse is less of an issue for me, in that it can be understood rather easily in different ways. Or maybe it’s even more of an issue because it’s too easy to just plug in what I want it to mean.) Does baptism apply to the whole family? Imagine a family where the parents have heard the gospel preached by Peter, their hearts have been made soft by God, and they want to take the next step. Peter says to repent and be baptized. (He does not say, “Ask Jesus into you heart,” or anything so formal as the sinner’s prayer, btw.) So the parents say let’s do it. And then they think of their children, and they are reminded of the words of Joshua, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” They turn to Peter and ask if their whole family can be baptized. (Or maybe this issue never came up because it was just assumed.) How would Peter have replied? And if he said yes, would he believe that the children, who we imagine were too young to truly understand what is happening to them, would still receive some benefit, some grace, because of the act? I am inclined to think that Peter would have said yes to the family being baptized and that he would believe in the benefit of baptism, even to the children. This way of thinking flies in the face of my particular reformed training which denies infant baptism.

So here I am with all these questions. I am steeped (have been brewed in) a concoction of reformed thinking since I was born. And the particular version of that brew is a mix of evangelical, fundamentalist, Calvinist, and Baptist. Curiously, I find myself fascinated with Catholic theology these days. All the classic rebuttals against Catholicism have been gradually turning into questions again for me. The answers I was given are not so self-evident anymore. I feel less affinity with a number of the classic reformed arguments. Thus I am swimming in the zone between. I do not fully accept the Catholic position, but I no longer fully accept the reformed position. To the chagrin of any Bible thumping fundamentalist I am, as we tend to say these days, in process.

I grew up with something like this perspective on baptism (from the Southern Baptist Convention): “Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water. …It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.” This perspective falls within the concept of “believer’s baptism.” As you can see from the statement, baptism is an act of obedience and it is symbolic. I am not sure why an act of symbolism is also an act of obedience, especially if it symbolizes faith. I mean, I know all the arguments since I grew up with them, but it seems to me we are back at the mental gymnastics of not wanting to say that baptism is required, but still wanting to say it is. And I know from past experience (though I can’t say what it is today) that to become a member of a Baptist church one must be baptized, that is, fully immersed before witnesses.

So what about symbolism? We use symbols to stand for larger or more complex ideas or beliefs. The cross, as a symbol, stands for the death of Christ, which is part of the gospel message, which is much bigger than the symbol of the cross. But the cross is a kind of shorthand, something that powerfully stands for a total. But symbols only have meaning in a corporate context. Symbols bind us together. Thus baptism can be a powerfully symbolic act within a body of faith, that is within a corporate context of belief. But then I think of the verses from Acts 8:35-38, where Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch and teaches him the gospel from Isaiah. I pick two translations to highlight verse 37, which is missing from the ESV, but included in brackets in the NASB:

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (ESV)

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him. (NASB)

Why does the Ethiopian need to be baptized? What made him think he should be baptized. It makes sense that Philip said something to the Ethiopian like what Peter said earlier, that one must repent and be baptized, which raises all the same questions as before. But in this situation we also have only two people present, at least from what we can tell from the text. Today an evangelist will lead someone to Christ, then rejoice when they accept Him, then maybe hug them, then encourage them to join a church. What we don’t get today is the evangelist saying repent and be baptized. Billy Graham didn’t call people to come down, say a prayer and accept Jesus into their hearts, and then get baptized in some mass baptism ritual the way they did after hearing Peter’s preaching. Does Philip need to see the Ethiopian rise out of the water to know he has been saved? For whom is this symbolic act being performed other than Philip and the Ethiopian? In the context it would seem to be a rather private baptism. If this is the case then this baptism is not sending a symbolic message, at least not for others to see as it happened. It did get recorded, so we “see’ it, and presumably the Ethiopian told others. But given the situation it would seem that the need for the Ethiopian to be baptized is that it was thought by Philip as a necessity for becoming a follower of Christ, an important requirement, along with repentance, to be saved. In other words, it would appear that the apostles did not see baptism as merely a ritual, even an important ritual, but saw it as an essential part of the conversion process; one would not receive the Holy Spirit otherwise. Does this mean that baptism coveys something to the believer, something spiritual, something tangible? Are we saved in some way through baptism? Are we made better Christians in some way? Paul says in Romans:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5, ESV)

Here Paul links the act of baptism to Christ’s death. This makes sense, even if only at a symbolic level. But then Paul says that we were buried with Christ into death by baptism. This language seems rather forceful to me if we are only to see baptism as an optional and symbolic act. If Paul did not see baptism as anything other than a symbolic act tacked on to faith, then why draw such a strong link between the act of baptism and the theological point of our being buried with Christ? This baptism, according to these verses, links us to Christ’s death. Paul then goes on to argue that if we are united with Christ in his death by our being baptized, then surely we will also be united with him in the resurrection. Here then baptism is also linked to our resurrection. In other words, baptism is a part of the process we believers must go through if we are to be finally united with Christ, resurrected, attaining glory, saved. Right? Or is Paul writing only of an inner spiritual reality? If so, why the emphasis on baptism, which is something external, public, administered by someone else? Does this imply that those who have believed the gospel message, but have not yet been baptized, have not yet been baptized into Christ’s death? What are the implications of not being baptized? And is Paul referring strictly to a water baptism or some other kind, such as a spiritual baptism? In Colossians Paul says, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith…” If the circumcision is made without hands could also be the baptism Paul refers to?

In both cases (in Romans and in Colossians) I am inclined to see baptism as being a typical, water immersion kind of baptism. That is the kind of baptism, I believe, we see elsewhere in the Gospels and the book of Acts. It makes the most sense to me that the apostles and other disciples, as well as the rest of the early church, understood baptism as a physical act of immersion in water. The apostles saw the gospel as beginning with the baptism of John (see Acts 10:36-38) which was in the river Jordan. And consider John’s baptism. In Luke we read: “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He proclaimed a baptism. I find that language interesting. It would seem either that the apostles saw baptism as being more than merely symbolic, or that today we tend to have an anemic understanding of what symbolism means in God’s creation—or both.

Here is the tension for me: I have come to believe, at a deep level, and from my evangelical Baptist training, that baptism is not essential; that it does not impart anything, at least not in the way some see the sacraments doing. Then I read scripture and I see, at least on the surface, the apostles proclaiming baptism as essential. I want my faith to be that of the apostles. I have also come to realize that so much of my understanding of the Bible has been presented to me with a kind of formula: “Yes, it does say that n the surface, but let me tell you what it really means.” In other words, what I get from so much reformed teaching is akin to how we psychoanalyze people: we are always looking for the hidden meaning below the surface. Reformed theology, it seems to me, is based upon, or at least fosters a view of perpetual skepticism, including and maybe especially, the “obvious” meaning of scripture. Even my quotes around the word obvious speaks to this skepticism.

Tentative conclusion: It seems obvious to me that the apostles believed baptism is essential to the life of the Christian; that repentance and baptism go together, are tied to the receiving of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that a whole family can receive baptism, including the children, and that, in some way, that is good and proper. However, in the long run, and like circumcision, baptism does not save us by itself, rather it must accompany a heart oriented toward God and the eternal. Thus baptism, like circumcision, may be more an act of entering the communion of believers, the church. Baptism may also be an act of entering into a right relationship with God. It may also impart some spiritual gift, of which I am still unclear. Therefore, I am beginning to see baptism as more important, more relevant, and more powerful than I have believed in the past.

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